Rough & Ready Diplomacy

Coming back to the beach, after having parted from Lindsay, I met my pal the skipper, who, at my request, had regaled him on salmon and rum the night before. He was exulting over a Turkish rifle he carried, which he said he had begged from an ordnance officer, that it might hang, a trophy and an inspiration, in the wardroom of H.M.S. – .

‘You ‘re a lovely liar,’ I told him. ‘I know the wardroom it is going to decorate – somewhere in Brixton’. He solemnly winked and went on. He was a great fellow. When war was declared he was first officer on one of the big transport liners, but immediately volunteered to go anywhere and do anything, and the nearer the firing-line the better.

A little farther on I ran across Colonel Patterson, an old Guardsman who had equipped, at his own expense, a corps from Palestine, to carry water. They did excellent and merciful work all through the campaign, and one or two got mentioned. The colonel gave me a whisky, I remember. A very sensible chap; didn’t believe in water only. Nor do I.

Some captious reader may wonder what my works-party was doing all this time. Oh, that was all right! I had left it in charge of a very efficient subaltern. I always believe in making other people work, if possible. It does them good. And it does me good. I got down to my little lot just in time to catch our small boat, and off we went to our ship.

The next three days we were still unloading, and every one of us worked as we had never worked before. On Saturday I reported to the flagship that my party would be ready to be taken off on Sunday morning, and got a reply that this would be done at eight o’clock.

At ten o’clock on Saturday night a midshipman came on board to see the master. I have seen a good many weary men and boys since I last saw the moon rise over Melrose, but I believe that little middy was the most exhausted creature I ‘ve seen yet. He went on through sheer pluck, but his body was done. I think he could have slept at the mouth of a Turkish cannon. I gave him food, for he was hungry and thirsty; but even so, I had to keep talking to him, as, if I stopped but an instant, his head went on to his plate and he was fast asleep. He had been at it, without rest, since early on the 25th. It was the 31st now. War is no respecter of children.

When I had seen the midshipman off, the cabin-boy told me that the master wanted to see me. I went to his cabin, and, to my utter surprise, he said that he had orders to sail for Mudros at daybreak.

‘But what about my little lot, skipper? I  don’t get off till eight’ I exclaimed.

‘Don’t know anything about you’ was the disconcerting reply. ‘Orders are orders, and I sail at day break’. 

‘Now, look here, skipper’ I cried hotly – I was desperate – ‘chuck your damned official tone and talk sense. I am not going with you’. 

‘Well, get off my boat’.

‘How the devil can I get off your boat ?’

‘I don ‘t know. Jump off’ 

Here was a kettle of fish!  I had orders to rejoin my battalion, and somehow or other I was going to rejoin. I thought hard. 

Then i said, ‘Look here, old man ‘ (I was on the tactful lay now), ‘will you lend me a boat, and I‘ll go right to G.H.Q boat ? Where it is I don ‘t know, but I ‘ll have a thorough good try to find it’

‘Oh, all right’  the master conceded ‘you can have a boat. But mind you’re back by daybreak, or off I go, and your blooming Tommies ‘ll go with me for all I can see’.

That was a pretty prospect too! However, assuming a cheer I had not, I said gaily, ‘Right-o, old man’ and rushed off and about to gather up my good old crew, by no manner of means forgetting my marine.

It was particularly quick work, but we did it. We didn’t stop to parade or to polish up much brass. We didn’t even stand upon the order of our going. We just went for all we were worth, every man-jack Tommy of us. Off we started, and after getting more bad language than you’d hear in a lifetime in decent Scotland flung at me by skippers of a few trawlers and other boats that we appeared likely to ram or capsize – skippers who in turn took great pleasure in trying to swamp me or cut my (borrowed) gig  in two; after going in twenty wrong directions and taking twice twenty wrong turns, and kicking up more dust generally than is usually found on the nice clean sea, we arrived at General Headquarters.

I left my crew to ship oars, or dress ship, or dance up and down on the bubbly deep, as they saw fit, and scrambled up the gangway. At its top a stalwart sentry demanded my business. ‘Sentry go’ is Tommy’s one opportunity to treat his officer with hauteur. He rarely neglects it.

I had no idea whom to ask for, so I demanded to see Lieutenant Maule, one of our own subalterns, who was in charge of our detail of the escort of G.H.Q. I gave him a quick précis of my dilemma. Maule whistled, and then took me down to a naval officer who seemed to be a secretary. He was surrounded by pens and ink, and was flanked on every side by official books. I informed him who I  was, repeated in more detail the story I had told Maule, and begged that I might be taken off before the ship sailed, instead of, as now planned, several hours after she sailed.

I was listened to, and then I was asked to take a seat and wait.

I waited. I had to. That was the reason I did the only reason. It seemed an unconscionable while, but really before long a staff officer came in. For the third time of asking I repeated my tale. The staff officer listened, again without comment, and then he beckoned. I followed him up and down sundry stairs, through various corridors. He paused at a cabin door and told me to ‘go in’.  I did, and discovered a famous general at ease in his bunk, in the most beautiful pair of pyjamas I had ever seen.

For the fourth time I told my story. I was rather in a funk by this time, but that general was a brick (they usually are), and soon put me at my ease. He was amused, but he was not unsympathetic. After all, a general isn’t usually very fierce in his bed and pyjamas ; at least, one would imagine not. And I dare say I looked by this time as if I well might weep were spoken to too harshly.

He told the staff officer to rout out A.P.N.T.O. (pronounced ‘apinto’) from his bed, and tell him to take immediate action, as every man was needed in the peninsula, and none could be spared to cruise about Mudros Bay. I was escorted back to the secretarial-looking office, and the staff officer went to get the Assistant Principal Naval Transport Officer ‘apinto’.  See?

It was now the wee, sma’ hours of the morning, and I was getting a bit fed-up. It looked Íike no bed for me that night – which the proper spirit might think quite a good joke and I began to have visions of the good ship ‘Tramp’ and her adamant skipper steaming away with my men, leaving me and my crew stranded on G.H.Q. boat, and to see any joke in that required a broader sense of humour than mine.

Just as I was reaching that tired point when overtaxed anxiety dwindles into weak ‘don’t care’ a gentleman appeared in a dressing gown and spectacles. It was quite a smart dressing gown, but dull and uninteresting after the general’s pyjamas.. I suspect the new arrival had a few other things on beside the two I  have catalogued, but that was all I could see. He asked a little drowsily what all my story was about. I kept my temper (I jolly well had to!), and for the fifth time told my plight from the curt Alpha of the skipper’s ultimatum to the horrible Omega of my unit about to be shipped back to Mudros, or some other unknown and more remote place – and they all captainless, poor things! I flatter myself pitched the tale rather well this time. I was getting easy in my lines, and even threw in a gesture or two. I am thinking of doing it as an after-the-war recitation at At Homes and garden fêtes.

The staff officer sauntered in while I was reciting to gown and specs, and kindly chipped in most effectively. He knew it almost as well as I did by this time – and so he ought he ‘d heard it often enough – and he had a larger flow of phrases ; and then, too, he had had the general’s orders.

Well, I did my best. But at first I thought it was all up with me. Persons hauled out of their beds are not as a rule uncommonly tractable, and the one in question looked glum. But after a bit of an argument Apinto decided to write me an order to the master of my ship to delay his sailing until an hour or so after sunrise, that I might be able to get myself and my men off, and up to Gallipoli, where we were wanted.

I have a strong suspicion that H.M. Navy wished to grab my men (unquestionably the pick of our contemptible little army) for a ship’s working-party. But I have never been able to prove it, and at the time I did not mention it. I pocketed my precious document, thanked everybody, especially that trump of a staff officer, and bolted for my row-boat.

My crew had been waiting the whole time, tossing about in the little gig. I thought then that they deserved to be mentioned, and I think so still.

Off we went, and ultimately we got once more alongside our floating palace. I took an exquisite delight in waking the skipper telling him the news.  I hadn’t enjoyed any thing so much since I was four and got my thing so much since I was four and got my first breeks. But he returned good for evil, and opened a bottle. He was a good chap, was Captain King; one of the best.

We were all glad to go. Waiting about in wartime is desperately trying, but I think every one of us was sincerely sorry to leave the S.S.Melville and Captain King. I often wonder whether she is still afloat. If she is, and I can find her, I intend to board her once more and wring hands all round. Our weeks on her were the most enjoyable of all our time in the East. We all said so. She was no P. and 0., but a jolly cosy home, not soon to be forgotten.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *